Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Challenging Special Interests

Barack Obama can stir powerful sentiments with his words. One formulation that he has used in the campaign pits the common interest against special interests. As he said in East Rutherford, New Jersey on the eve of Super Tuesday:

“Change happens from the bottom up. So I believed that if we could get the voices of the American people to join together, people from all walks of life: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, North, South, East, West, rich, poor, young and old, we could gather our voices to challenge the special interests that have come to dominate Washington.”

How right Obama is about the stranglehold of special interests! But is it really just a matter of “joining our voices”? The super-exorbitant political process we’ve created for this year’s election seems destined to strengthen, not weaken, the domination of special interests. Depressing new evidence of this comes from an interesting report by Brody Mullins in the April 2 Wall Street Journal. He notes that seven major traditionally solidly Republican industries have this year showered more of their largesse on Clinton and/or Obama than on McCain. At the top of this list are executives in finance/insurance/real estate and health care. They’re investing in the status quo, not in change.

So, how can we hope that “voices of the American people” could ever “challenge the special interests”? If our elections are becoming longer and our nation’s attention span shorter, how can we hope for a fundamental change in the direction of this country?

In a previous comment, I suggested that one way was for candidates to seek a mandate for fundamental policy reforms in the course of an election campaign and not to try to define it once the election is won. That idea hasn’t exactly sparked a prairie fire of support.

The more I see of this campaign, however, the more I’m certain that my analysis is right on. John McCain’s economic strategy is essentially to trust the invisible hand of market forces to correct what ails the American economy. Oh, and throw in a little tax relief aimed at the middle class and a specious gasoline tax suspension. This is supposed to bring fundamental change to our economic system?

Hillary’s answer is a mosaic of policy proposals, a mountain of specific measures she will support or – watch her words carefully – “consider.” What is she actually committing to do? And how would her pile of proposals add up to fundamental economic change in this country?

Obama spins beautiful, poetic assurances such as making workers his top priority. What does that mean? What kind of tax policy puts workers first? Or infrastructure policy? Or energy policy?

So, let me go back to the demand side of the political equation. Perhaps candidates don’t offer meaty ideas in campaigns because American voters simply don’t demand it. Eighty-one percent in a recent poll agreed that the country is headed in the wrong direction. What to do about it? Oh, that’s another question, and there has been surprisingly little interest in discussing what to do about it beyond – and this much is guaranteed – electing a president not named George W. Bush.

Perhaps it’s time that we put the demos back in our democracy. One ray of hope was the extraordinary candidate forum sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Pittsburgh on April 14, where more than 1,000 participants listened carefully and respectfully challenged two of the candidates – McCain had “other priorities” – to be more specific and more credible. Another hopeful development is the emergence of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (full disclosure: I sit on its board) that is ambitiously trying to create a national grass-roots action coalition of farmers, ranchers, organized labor and manufacturers. By its bootstraps, the CPA is simultaneously studying issues, holding town hall meetings, seeking access to candidates – all with the aim of getting agreement on a comprehensive national strategy to enable American producers in all sectors to have a fair chance of succeeding in global markets. If such a diverse group could agree on a few big changes to serve the national interest, perhaps the candidates will finally take notice and join in with their voices.

Charles Blum


  1. Barak Obama is simply painting in broad strokes. When Hilary offers detailed proposals, she is called a wonk (which she is). He is sticking to the abstract because that is where he does best. He can't out-wonk Hilary (though I suspect he is more intelligent than she is) so he has to play on his strengths. He inspires. During the Maryland primary I saw people handing out home-made flyers in support of Obama. They were obviously made on a home printer and not sponsored by the campaign. If you want grassroots, you should try to contact the metro flyer woman!

    McCain is doing exactly the right thing to win office. He should sit back, relax, raise some money, and watch the Democrats fight it out. When the dust settles, you will see some spirit in him.

    Hilary should just call it quits. There is probably another book somewhere in that brain of hers.

  2. Mr. Obama could have chosen his comments more carefully. They may resonate in San Francisco but not so much in Nebraska. Guns and religion are a part of rural Mid-Western culture in good economic times and bad. I wonder what rural Hawaii is like...